Border Bust: The human costs of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star continue to pile up

click to enlarge Critics charge that Gov. Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star is more about spectacle than seeking a workable solution to the spike in border crossings. - Instagram / govabbott
Instagram / govabbott
Critics charge that Gov. Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star is more about spectacle than seeking a workable solution to the spike in border crossings.
As Gov. Greg Abbott escalates his bravado on border security going into the 2022 election, it’s hard to imagine how his Operation Lone Star is a winner with anyone other than hard-right Republican primary voters.

Fueled by his repeated claims that the Biden Administration isn’t doing enough to stem illegal border crossings, Abbott’s high-profile project deployed state troopers and Texas National Guardsmen to arrest migrants accused of minor property crimes such as property trespassing.

However, the $2 billion operation has drawn stinging criticism from lawmakers and immigrant-rights groups for violating arrestees’ constitutional rights, creating a legal morass and creating hardships for Texas National Guard troops.

Since its launch last year, Operation Lone Star has overwhelmed South Texas criminal justice systems with misdemeanor arrests, and both federal lawmakers and the ACLU have called for a Justice Department probe, citing the constitutional questions raised by Abbott’s pet project.

Prosecutorial bungles have led to the large-scale release of migrants after courts determined that hundreds were detained for weeks without charges or the ability to speak to an attorney, according to extensive reporting by the Texas Tribune. For many, that jail time is more than they would have received had they been found guilty of the minor offenses for which they’d been charged.

“Gov. Abbott deserves every bit of scrutiny that these policies bring about,” said Susannah Cunningham, a national security fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “The images of him at the border making these proclamations, surrounded by mostly white law enforcement officials are extremely evocative of Klan tactics.”

Cunningham, who has extensive experience working with refugee groups, argues that Operation Lone Star demonizes immigrants while clinging to an outdated deterrence policy that’s repeatedly been proven ineffective in deterring immigrants fleeing hunger, violence and grinding poverty.

In an emailed statement, Abbott spokesperson Nan Tolson called Operation Lone Star a response to the White House’s “reckless open border policies.”

“Gov. Abbott initiated a new policy of arrest and jail — instead of President Biden’s catch and release program — to stop this revolving door and deter others considering entering illegally,” Tolson said.

Tolson added that Abbott’s office has issued $74.8 million in grant funding to help South Texas communities execute “coordinated border security operations.”

The ACLU complaint, filed last month in partnership with other civil rights groups, alleges that local officials involved in Abbott’s sweep have used xenophobic language, tried to enlist the aid of militia groups and sought to contract with private security groups to detain migrants, nearly all of whom have been Black or Latino.

Indeed, the filing argues, “the nature of the program — state-sanctioned targeting of immigrants — has further fueled racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and action” in Texas.

Strain on troops

Beyond the effect on migrants, both documented and undocumented, critics say it’s also become increasingly clear that Operation Lone Star is taking a toll on members of the Texas National Guard. A December investigation by the Army Times documented four suicides among those troops late last year, most of whom sign up expecting to serve part time.

In November, Abbott’s office bragged to news site Border Report that it had deployed 10,000 troops for its anti-migrant sweeps.

The suicides come as multiple news organizations report that troops pulled into Operation Lone Star are plagued by pay delays and poor working conditions. Additionally, Texas Military Department’s tuition assistance funds were cut in half under the state’s new two-year budget.

In an emailed statement supplied to the Current, the Texas Military Department said it dispatches “Behavioral Health teams” with each task force it deploys and that it offers a 24/7 counseling program. Department officials told the Texas Tribune that only two of the four suicides reported by the Army Times were among troops “on orders in support of Operation Lone Star.”

In comments to the Current, the Texas Military Department said it’s working through payroll problems and correcting them as soon as they’re identified.

“Any lingering pay issues are primarily systems and administrative errors and as such it is possible for new pay issues to arise,” according to the email.

Renewed calls for a probe

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, was among 25 federal lawmakers requested the Justice Department and Homeland Security investigate Operation Lone Star in an October letter. Castro said he and the others are preparing to renew their request.

“There have got to be consequences from the Justice Department for the governor abusing resources and unconstitutionally keeping people in jail for prolonged periods,” he said. “He’s risking people’s lives, including members of the Texas National Guard, who have been pulled into work they weren’t trained for at the same time as their benefits have been cut.”

Castro disputes the necessity of state intervention, pointing out that the U.S. Border Patrol has three times as many agents in South Texas as it did 20 years ago and has made massive investments in monitoring technology.

To be sure, the Biden White House last year deported more migrants than the Trump administration did over its entire four-year-term, the Washington Post reports. Indeed, civil rights groups complain that Biden has kept in place some of the most draconian elements of Trump’s immigration policy, including Title 42, which uses the pandemic as rationale for expelling migrants without the chance to request asylum.

In the end, critics charge, it’s unimportant to Abbott and his advisors whether Operation Lone Star works. Like the governor’s resurrection of Trump’s border wall, it’s largely performative — a means to posture while distracting from failures such as his mishandling of the pandemic that’s so far killed 77,000 Texans.

“It’s about spectacle: it’s being done for political gain,” said Aimee Villarreal, a professor of Mexican American Studies at Our Lady of the Lake University. “But, at the same time, it’s also propagating undemocratic principles by militarizing border communities. ... What you see going on is what you see in war zones.”

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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